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Photographing strangers, Part 2 (02/09/2006)
By Tom Hirsch
When photographing a stranger, should you explain your reasons for wanting the pictures? Only if you're asked. Unless you're carrying something like a Gismomatic Deluxe XL 5000 with 35-300 f/2.8 lens and a suitcase-size gadget bag, they'll realize that you're an amateur photographer who has good taste in people.

Unless you're requested to do so, don't tip the person after the pictures have been taken. But if the individual is a merchant or craftsperson, it's appropriate, nice, and probably ethical, to buy something from them. An exception to the no tipping generalization is when visiting a poor foreign land. In a depressed country, the livelihood of many citizens depends on tips.

Speaking of posing (we did mention it last time), it's true that people are less spontaneous when we ask them to act natural, but quite often the pictures are better, and sometimes it's the only expedient way of getting the shots we want.

Posing need not be formal. If you intend to photograph a vender, craftsperson, or construction worker going about her or his business, it would be impractical and impolite to interrupt and ask them to pose for you. Wait for a break in the activity, or just start shooting. Then, when you get their attention, say something like, "Please don't stop what you're doing." This can have the same effect as asking permission to take pictures.

If you and your selected subject have the time, try to pose them with an appropriate lighting direction, and against a suitable background. But be respectful of the person's time by planning these things in advance.

Based on how much time you spend with a person and how well you feel you know them after such a short period of time, you might want to compensate them with a copy of one of the best photos. Take their name and address, and be sure to follow through.

Small groups of people can be even easier than individuals to photograph. The subjects are less apt to feel self-conscious because they can rely on one another for support. Be sure to get them in animated conversation or in some interacting pose. The only posing that might be necessary would be to have them move closer together in order to provide a stronger feeling of intimacy.

Children are another matter. If they're aware that you want to take pictures of them, you might have trouble fending them off. Even children who are not acquainted with you will mug the camera as though you were a longtime friend.

The fact that kids are so spontaneous means that you have to think ahead and be prepared for the unexpected. You'll want to have a few ideas in mind so you can react as the opportunities arise.

The first thing to remember when photographing children is to get down on their eye level. It provides a more intimate point of view, and you'll get more interesting pictures than you would by shooting from an adult perspective.

Choose the format to fit the activity. If you're photographing an individual child, it will probably be best to shoot vertically, and a group of kids should probably be taken horizontally. But these generalizations might be reversed depending on the situation and/or the surroundings.

When taking candid shots of children, go at your own pace, and be sure to vary the distance and angle for variety. If you do any posing, remember that kids (as well as adults) have a short attention span. Select the location and lighting direction ahead of time, quickly set up the shots, take the pictures, thank them, and move on.

Who knows, asking if you can take their picture might turn a perfect stranger into a lifelong friend. 


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